Monthly Archives: November 2012

Iron John – An Initiation – Fathers

Continuing to look at the journey a boy takes as he transitions into manhood, we stop at phase two in the path described by Robert Bly in his research dissecting Grimm’s fairy tale Iron John. As he details, there is a 5-fold process that a boy takes:

Bonding to and separation from the mother

Bonding to and separation from the father

Arrival of the male mentor

Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy

Marriage to the holy woman or queen

This second step, bonding to and separation from the father, takes a very similar path to the first step, at least in the separation phase. The bonding to the father, however, is much harder. Robert Bly notes that “we often postpone the father bonding until we are fifty or so, and then separation still has to be done.” A large cause of this is the fact that the father is so absent from the life of his son. How, then, can a son bond with his father if he is not there. This post is less for sons and boys trying to become men and more for the men who are absent from their sons lives. Mostly, however, it is a thanks to my father for always being there for me.

I was very blessed in my upbringing. I was raised in a two parent home. My father was far from absent. In fact, while other fathers may have chosen to hit the golf course or stay after work to further their careers into management, my dad came home in the evenings. In my early childhood, he would come home and coach my brother or my soccer teams. The weekends, instead of playing golf, he and my mother chauffeured us to swim meets, soccer games and tournaments, or piano competitions. As I got older, in the morning, he would wake my brother and me up at 5am to take us to swim practice. Then, that evening, he would grade our math (algebra, calculus, and physics) homework and work with us to help us understand it better. If he ever got tired of being my father, I never knew it. I am the man I am today because of the sacrifices my father made for me and I only hope that I can be the father he was for us when I have children.

And, that’s what a dad is supposed to be: a man who is there for his children, both sons and daughters. I’ve cited it before in this blog, that 30% of children will go to bed without fathers. Without that father figure, some will turn inward, some will look out to negative influences. 

My first call, then, is to fathers, to be there for your sons. Your legacy isn’t in how many hours you worked or how many promotions you got; it’s in the children who follow after you.

My second call, or offering, is for those boys who are growing up with fathers, whether physically absent or just emotionally so. Seek out a positive father figure. Boys learn how to be men from other men, it’s in our nature. Get involved in your church youth group, in Boy Scouts, in school programs. And mothers, help your son find a positive male figure; he may not be able to make that big of a choice just yet, but hopefully you have the wisdom to do so.

Lastly, boys, and men, there is a Man who you should always look to, whether your father is present or not. Jesus, a Man “who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He Humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:6-8), death for you and me. The Bible details Jesus’ life on earth, and He is the perfect Man. No matter who you have or don’t have, He is an example you can always look to. He loves you, and He died to save you.

Fathers, we need you. Your sons need you. They need to bond with you, and then they need you to let them go, but still be there as a man alongside them or just behind them.

To fathers raising their sons, and to my dad, a man among men,


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Posted by on November 27, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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Iron John – An Initiation – Separation from the Mother

Last post, I described the stages of initiation a boy goes through on his journey to masculinity. We see them outlined as:

Bonding to and separation from the mother

Bonding to and separation from the father

Arrival of the male mentor

Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy

Marriage to the holy woman or queen

Through this post, I hope to expound on the first stage of his quest into masculinity, the idea of bonding to and separation from the mother. I believe that celebrating our mothers can show us how much they have done to help us grow. In the tale of Iron John, we see both of these parts happen in one quick motion. We certainly see the boy’s attachment to his mother in where the key is hidden (her bedroom under the pillow) as well as his physical and psychological separation from her in his theft of the key and running off into the forest. Thus, bonding to and separation from the mother occurs in both the physical realm as well as the psychological realm. Robert Lewis, in “Men’s Fraternity – The Quest for Authentic Manhood”, offers that a man must make both a physical and an emotional break from his mother.

Let’s first look at this idea of physical bonding to and separation from the mother. Typically, this occurs from birth through the first years of a boy’s life. Most boys (and girls) rely on their mothers for provision and care during their formative years, and this creates a physical bond. As a boy ages, he becomes less physically dependent on his mother. He is able to provide for his own needs and care for himself. Mothers can attempt to hold onto this physical bond, continuing to meet the needs of their boys, almost babying them to keep that connection, but, for the most part, boys desire to be self-sufficient. The most visible separation from mother occurs when a boy moves to college or out on his own, provided he’s not still running home for laundry and a home-cooked meal. Thus, this physical side of bonding to and separation from the mother is fairly straight-forward and easy.

The psychological and emotional bonding to and separation from the mother is far more difficult, both to explain and to execute. Much of the bonding occurs in the same way that the physical bonding does. She provides for her sons, they depend on her in the early stages of life, and continue to do so. She’s there as the emotional caregiver for them. How could you not bond psychologically with that? Doing so, however, and failing to separate from the mother, can cause several wounds. 

In his seminar series, Robert Lewis offers that this wound first generally begins with an absent or distant father. That lack of a father’s closeness can cause a boy to turn to his mother for all of his emotional needs. The end result: a dominant and controlling man or a passive and submissive man. When we look back at the definition of a man I’ve offered, a dominant man is highly lacking in respect (for others, especially women); the passive man is lacking in responsibility for his own actions. The lack of separation and the wounds it causes keep boys from making that move into the characteristics of masculinity.

So, what does this separation look like? I am fortunate that through the guidance and counsel of my mentor (stage 3, according to Robert Bly, however, I do not feel the stages must happen in a straight line), I was able to separate from my mother in a gentle way. Before that, I was attached to her; I leaned on her for decisions, often letting her make them for me, even though I would most likely have decided the same thing. And, she was happy to oblige, not out of any controlling instinct, but out of motherly care. This was why the separation was both extremely necessary and hard at the same time. I was not being responsible and that was hindering my development into manhood. Now, after making that separation, I am still able to talk with her, but we connect on a more adult level. I still respect her as my mother, but we treat each other as adults.

For those boys on this path, separation from the mother involves several steps:

Recognize the areas of control the mother has in your life. Speak with her about these and address each of them with specific actions.

Set boundaries for interactions with the mother. Replace some of the time spent with her with time with others, specifically men who can serve as advisors. Big point here – make sure the separation is not a complete severing of the relationship, but rather a reframing of it to one grounded on mutual respect.

Find other men to help hold accountable. It’s not going to be easy, especially if the mother has always been the go-to for advice and counsel. She is smart, I know, but there are other men who can help as well.

Recognize that this separation might result in mother withdrawing. In the first little bit, she may not recognize that this is an action of love, not frustration or hate. She will adjust, I promise.

This separation from the mother is an essential part of transitioning from boyhood to manhood. Every person’s path will be different, the break will be specific to individuals. My parting advice is to examine your relationship with your mother. Have you completely broken all ties with her and thrown her out of your life? That doesn’t indicate clean and clear separation. Reestablish that relationship, but with proper boundaries. Are you overly tied to or dependent on your mother? Start working towards a relationship where you are equals (but you still respect her as an elder).

The path to manhood is a long, hard one, but to begin, a boy must first steal that key from his mother. A clean separation is essential. Once that has happened, a boy can begin developing further under the tutelage of elder men.

To mothers, who love us and care for us, and to growing up and separating, not forgetting them, but showing that they raised us right and respecting them all the days of our lives,


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Posted by on November 20, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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Iron John – An Overview

While reading VoiceMale magazine, I came across an idea, one that sums up the idea of masculinity – Manhood is not the opposite of womanhood; it is the opposite of boyhood.

With this idea of opposite-ness in place, the burning questions, at least for me, are the following:

What are the signs/traits of a man?

When does a boy become a man? (What is that turning point or are there multiple turning points in this journey?)

How does a boy become a man?

I believe all three of these are very closely interconnected. After all, the process of becoming a man must take boys through a journey and instill in them certain character traits common to all men (but not present in boys). While we can say that no two boys are the same, and that no two journeys into masculinity are the same, they do tend to follow a certain path. In his book, “Iron John: A Book About Men”, Robert Bly, a poet and translator looks at an old fairy tale, written by the Brothers Grimm, called, coincidentally enough, “Iron John”. As a mythologist, Robert Bly takes the myth and legend stories told in various countries and applies them with a bit of psychology to the development of individuals. This post is my attempt to summarize his thoughts, in the hopes of building off of each of his premises in later pieces.

“Iron John” is seen as a parable about boys becoming men. The general story is complex and too long to be reproduced here. If you’d like to read it in its entirety, click here. I will attempt a brief summary of the story arc as well.

As a story, the arc very closely mimics the journey a young boy takes on his journey to becoming a man. It begins with the loss of innocence, as the boy loses his golden ball in the cage belonging to Iron John. We then see rebellion and separation from the boy’s mother as Iron John offers to give back the ball, only if the boy unlocks the cage. The boy finds the key hidden under his mother’s pillow and offers it to Iron John. As Iron John runs away, the boy realizes what he’s done and begs him to return. This separation has occurred, though, so the boy’s only recourse is to be taken away to the wilderness by Iron John. 

In the forest, Iron John serves as a male mentor to the boy, giving him a task to complete (guarding a sacred pond). Because of a wound he received early (indicative of our own wounded psyche), the boy fails at this task and is sent away. Iron John does promise, though, that if the boy ever needs anything, he could return to the forest and call for Iron John. After leaving the forest, we see the typically fairy tale love story, with the boy working in a city garden and having a princess fall in love with him. He leads the king’s army to victory over overwhelming odds, then later wins the hand of the princess. He is reunited with his parents and Iron John is revealed as a king who had previously been cursed.

Robert Bly, in examining this story as a blueprint for the growth of a boy into a man, offers a template for initiation into masculinity (the answer to the how question raised above). He cites five stages of initiation, as present in the story of “Iron John”. They are:

Bonding with mother and separation from mother – This is typically the first stage of initiation into masculinity. Children bond very quickly to their mothers after birth, and boys are no exception to this. The path to manhood, then, begins when a boy begins to separate himself from his mother, as the boy did when he stole the key from under his mother’s pillow.

Bonding with father and separation from father – This is a harder aspect of initiation, especially for those boys that grow up without fathers. Robert Moore states that “If you’re a young man, and you’re not being admired by an older man, you’re being hurt.” Boys need to bond with their fathers, and all too often, this bonding takes place far later in life, postponing this crucial step of the initiation process. 

Arrival of the “male mother” or mentor – Symbolized by Iron John in the Grimm fairy tale, the mentor plays a crucial role in a boy’s life in helping the boy build a bridge to his greatness. The mentor does not fill the role of the father, but rather fills in gaps and pushes the boy to become even better.

Apprenticeship to a hurricane energy – Again symbolized by Iron John in our fairy tale, the wild man inside us often needs to be released. It takes a mere glimpse at boys at play to see the wildness they have in their spirit, but as they grow, that wildness is subdued. A man is not constantly wild, however he is able to access his wild side, and apprenticeship to this hurricane energy allows him to develop it in a safe manner.

Marriage to the holy woman or queen – We see this at the end of the fairy tale, that the boy marries the princess. Note that this does not mean that marriage is required for initiation into masculinity (as I have been asked before). Rather, I see this marriage as identification with a man’s feminine, or sympathetic side. We already see the harnessing of the wild energy in the previous “step”; now the boy must harness his sympathetic and compassionate energy.

Robert Bly offers that these steps really should be seen as a straight line, one happening after the other. Sadly, the bonding with and separation from the father typically occurs much later in life, leaving men stranded without completing that stage of their initiation. I see some of them happening simultaneously or as a result of the other. I know that it was not until I had found my mentor that I separated from my mother. 

I believe the outline that Robert Bly offers for boys becoming men is one that we can look to and follow. It is difficult, but it will lead to more fulfilled and healthy masculine lives and relationships. In the next weeks, over five posts, I will delve into each of the steps at length, looking at how they can happen, what the result of their absence is, and how those concerned can help with the process.

To rescuing our boys from everlasting childhood and initiating them into masculinity,


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Posted by on November 13, 2012 in Rites of Passage


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Boy to Men: The Gap

In my study of what it means to be a man, something keeps arising that has been bothering me. There’s no real distinction of when a boy becomes a man. An informal poll of my friends and students yields that either (1) they do not know (or have not hit that crossing moment) or (2) they became a man mostly when they struck out on their own, independent of their family, paying bills themselves, working jobs, the like.

But, when I look back to what makes a man, what I’ve discovered at least, this striking out on their own does not do justice as a rite of passage. As I’ll explain in the coming weeks (as I delve deeper into this subject), the rite of passage occurs with the guidance of older, respected males at the helm, teaching and guiding the way. It culminates, typically, with a challenge, at which point the adolescent male (that time between boyhood and manhood) returns to his mentors victorious, and is brought into their fold as a man. Probably the best example I can give is that from 300:

Prior to this scene, you see the boy being raised as a fighter, taught everything he needs to know, before thrust into the wild for his final quest as a boy. When he kills the wolf and returns home with it, it signifies his crossing into manhood.

Know that I’m not advocating that we throw our boys into the wild with a loincloth and a spear. But, at present, in the US, there is not much in the way of rites of passage. Because of this, we run the risk of having adult males like Marcel, described by authors Stephen James and David Thomas. Marcel was a successful plastic surgeon, but his marriage was dying, his work bored him, and he was close to depression. But, more so, he was unmanly…boyish, unhardened by life, wide-eyed and exuberant. This innocence came from his loss of his father before fully being initiated into manhood. To hear Marcel say it “I guess I never learned what it means to be a man. My dad died when a boy needs a dad the most.” (pp. 273-274)

Richard Rohr points out (cited in James and Thomas’s book) that “only our Western culture has ‘deemed it unnecessary to “initiate” young men. Otherwise, culture after culture felt that if the young man were not introduced to “the mysteries,” he would not know what to do with his pain and would almost always abuse his power'” (p. 276). This is so true. Continuing from James and Thomas, “without initiation, boys become disillusioned, dissatisfied, and disenchanted. They have nothing greater than themselves to be a part of – they lack a moral and spiritual identity – and they have no greater story to guide them. … Without initiation, boys are groping for direction, but without meaning or purpose. Ultimately, an uninitiated boy lives isolated and disconnected from himself, from others, and from the world” (p. 277).

Our boys need an initiation. They need a rite of passage that they can claim as their passage into manhood. If adult men that care about them (especially their fathers) do not provide this, they will seek it somewhere else. Many times, in my work with fraternities, the hazing that goes on inside a chapter is referred to as a rite of passage. These college males never were initiated into manhood, do not have the three pillars of manhood (responsibility, respect, and reverence), and so, they place themselves at the will of adolescent males 2-3 years their senior, who have no more knowledge of what it means to be a man than they do. Other boys will turn to gangs, and still others will never be initiated into manhood, and will become like Marcel above.

My challenge is for men, real men, to step up, and look for opportunities to help the boys in our midst have that rite of passage. You cannot replace their father, but if he is present, you can encourage and help him to offer an initiation into manhood for his son (at the proper time). If he is not, you can work with other men who are invested in that boy’s life to offer a model of masculinity and an initiation into manhood.

To helping our boys chart a path into manhood, to proper rites of passage, and to refinding the “lost boys”,



James, S., & Thomas, D. (2009). Wild things: The art of nurturing boys. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

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Posted by on November 6, 2012 in About Men


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